Fantastic Fest 2023: The Toxic Avenger and So Unreal

Fantastic Fest 2023: The Toxic Avenger and So Unreal

The Toxic Avenger – dir. Macon Blair

“I’m not the step-dad, I’m the dad who stepped up.” So says the oddly combative t-shirt that undoubtedly belongs in the closet of Winston Gooze (Peter Dinklage). Janitor, widower, and stepfather to an increasingly distant young man (Jacob Tremblay), his life is meek and pitiable. Add to that a recent terminal diagnosis, and Winston has pretty much given up on life. But as we all know, things are about to change for Winston. When he accidentally falls into he crosshairs of a battle between pharmaceutical billionaire Bob Garbinger (Kevin Bacon) and an eco-activist with a score to settle (Taylour Paige), he is gruesomely transformed into the Toxic Avenger aka Toxie. Armed with a glowing, super-powered mop and a fuck ton of spite, Toxie is primed to dish out gruesome justice, while also stepping up as a father (like the shirt!).

Those with eyes are likely familiar with Toxie, the most popular and lucrative piece of Troma IP, rebooted here with a slick new sheen by writer/director Macon Blair. His version of Toxie is a bit different than the one put forth by schlockmeister Lloyd Kaufman. While the OG take on the character is just a nerd utilizing his toxic superpowers to dish out revenge to bullies and potentially get laid in the process, Blair’s version has a bit more meat on its bones. Indicative of this change in cinematic goals is Toxie homself. The opening act of the film has a pre-transformation Peter Dinklage flexing his considerable acting abilities to evoke a sturdy level of empathy for Winston, even as he exists in a world much more absurd than our own (think Beau is Afraid in terms of balls-to-the-wall calamity). By building a strong emotional structure upon which the bulk of the film can goopily and goofily operate, The Toxic Avenger goes beyond being just a genre exercise, and well beyond being a simple remake.

That said, this isn’t a full departure from what we maniacs love about Troma. This version is shinier, sharper, and absent of sleaze, but the gleeful violence, fuck-the-system anarchy, and crass abandon of propriety we expect from the brand are in rich supply. The punk rock, revolutionary sensibilities, pointed here at the greedy 1% (represented here by a Bieber-cutted, gorilla blood-injecting Kevin Bacon) carry that much more weight on account of their timeliness.

The film’s biggest weakness is also one of its strengths. What I mean to say is that it’s TOO FUNNY. The wall-of-gags method of comedy means that the laughs are wildly consistent, but they frequently undercut the next gag. The viewer essentially has to pick and choose what to laugh at, which, given the “exposition through humor” methodology of the film, can leave certain dramatic elements feeling undercooked. This bodes well for repeat viewings, however. I’d bet good money that after even a tenth viewing, new gags will reveal themselves and the dramatic elements they fuel will feel a touch more lived-in. And believe you me, repeat viewings are welcome. This shit is just so much goopy, bloody fun.

So Unreal – dir. Amanda Kramer

Less a straightforward documentary than a cinematic essay, So Unreal collects clips from multiple decades of sci-fi films to chronicle the history of the human relationship with digital/internet/A.I. technology, and in doing so also provides a general history of the techniques filmmakers have used to depict such things on screen. Filmmaker Amanda Kramer lets the images do much of the talking, but filling the blanks we have dreamy narration by legendary musician, and star of the prominently featured Videodrome, Debbie Harry, who we must continue to protect and worship for the remainder of humanity’s existence.

The film features clips from some obvious classics like Terminator 2, The Matrix, and Tron, but also makes time for some wonderfully deep (or at least odd) cuts like Virtuosity, Brainstorm, and Arcade, which had me scrambling to write down every title I hadn’t seen.

It takes a little bit of time for So Unreal’s spell to be cast, and a bit longer for its point to be made. At first I found myself wondering if I had just signed up for a glorified clip show — far from the worst fate that a degenerate cinephile could find themselves subject to — but once the gears get turning it’s hard not to fall under the well-calculated sway of the film. The rhythm of the clips is consistent, and once enough of the narration is given room to breathe, the overall intentions of the project begin to gel.

There’s an old adage stating that the best science fiction predicts the future, but there’s another adage stating that the vision of the future on The Jetsons sure does look a lot like the 1960s. Looking back on decades of cinema that coincide with the dawn of the internet age, it’s fun to see how prescient so many of these films were — as well as how dated they seem now. It’s a reminder that history happens in the present, and we’re always witnessing it.

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